While at the fish market over the 4th of July weekend, a relatively young couple standing in the background attentively listened to the conversation I was having with Roberto our fishmonger. They knew we had just decided on a couple of red snappers in the 2 to 3 pound range with very clear eyes and reddish gills that clearly showed they had been out of the water for just a few hours. The couple was perplexed when I told Roberto to gut them and leave the scales.
After a moment, they could no longer help it and graciously while almost apologetic asked “Why are you keeping the scales? Isn’t removing the scales part of cleaning the fish? You are not going to eat them, are you?” While we all laughed, Roberto just looked at me and said “Maybe you should answer this one”.
“I have never heard of a single dish that calls for fish scales, even though they serve many functions” I said. “For example, according to several studies published in the Research Journal of Chemistry, fish scales are one of the better alternatives when used as a biosorbent to regulate the copper levels in water. Excessive levels of copper have adverse health effects on the human body”
Nevertheless, the most important function of scales is to protect the fish from external injuries, recognizing that not all fish have scales. They vary from one evolutionary line of fish to another. The type of scales a fish has, as well as whether a species has scales at all, can often be tied to the lifestyle of the species.
There are different types of scales and are categorized into five main types, Placoi, Cosmoid, Ganoid, Cycloid and Ctenoid, which only those interested in Squamatology, the study of scales, know about. We are not going around looking, but have never even heard of someone who cares.
“The reason for our keeping the scales” we went on to say “is because of how we are going to cook them. On the 4th of July everyone is doing something on the grill, mostly making hotdogs and hamburgers, but for a change of pace we like to grill fish”.
Usually when thinking about grilling fish, you think of the thick steaks or tender fillets, instead, we like to butterfly, split or kite them with the scales on. It is called butterflying or kiting because of their appearance, while splitting is what you are actually doing, even though it is kept in one piece. When this procedure is done properly, most of the bones are removed.
As the fish cooks on either the open flame or on aluminum foil if you want to keep it cleaner, the scales burn off and remain attached to the skin. Once again, as originally intended, the scales protect the flesh.
With little seasoning, nothing more than some good extra virgin olive oil and a bit of salt and pepper, the fish will keep its natural flavor. When cooked properly, you will be able to remove the meat with a plastic spatula or even a spoon, since it will slide off the skin and scales which are left behind.
We have seen different versions where grilling chefs have added all kinds of herbs and aromatics, garlic, onions, cilantro, lemon or lime, parsley and even BBQ sauce. Sometimes after the fish is cooked, different sauces are added that could be as simple as olive oil with roasted garlic or complicated enough to include clams and shrimp. Basically the fish can be made to match your mood and taste, but to this date I have yet to see anyone enjoying the scales.